Dr. #2 is going to have to help me out on this post since she’s the feminist scholar. (Everything I learned about feminism I’ve been learning from her and academic blogs!) But I’m beginning to know subtle sexism when I see it.
Language is a tricky thing. We can say one thing overtly but use language that implicitly says something quite the opposite. How we say something can be more important than what we actually say.
Woman as child
There is so much infantilizing of women. When’s the last time you called a woman over age 18 a girl for any reason? Please, check yourself. If you get together with a group of women, are they girlfriends? Who gets called baby?
[disclaimer: I think this song is MAD CATCHY!]
Much of this information comes from the work of Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues.
Much research shows that when people read, say, or hear “he” or “him” as generic pronouns, they almost always think of male examples. In one study, participants read a sentence about “the average student” at a university, and that student was referred to as either his, their, or his or her. Then participants had to make up stories about this fictional student. When “the average student” got the his pronoun, 65% of the stories were about men. Using their resulted in 54% of stories being about men. Using his or her, 44% were about men. There are a lot of studies that replicate this finding.
That study was from 1978 with adults, so Hyde wanted to look at children and how they developed these ideas. She gave children a sentence such as: When a kid goes to school, ____ often feels excited on the first day. She filled the blank with either he, they, or he or she. When the word was he, not a single boy in all of elementary school (through fifth grade) made up a story about a girl. In fact, most children, girls and boys, did not even know about he being (supposedly) gender-neutral. However, despite not being aware of the rule, most children thought of “human” as equivalent to “male”. In another sentence, Hyde had children fill in the blank: If a kid likes candy, ____ might eat too much. Overwhelmingly, the children filled in “he” to represent a random kid. Even the girls.
This is true in English, which does not have genders on all our nouns, and also in other languages, like German and Spanish, which do.
Finally, Janet Shibley Hyde gave elementary school children a paragraph describing the fictional occupation of wudgemaker. She varied the pronouns, and then asked children how well a woman could do the job, and how well a man could do it. When rating men, pronoun had no effect on what children thought of them as wudgemakers. They answered that a man could do the job pretty well whether the pronoun described wudgemakers as he, they, she, or he-or-she. However, when figuring out how well a woman could do the job, pronouns mattered. Children who heard the pronoun he to describe a typical wudgemaker rated a woman as being “just ok” at that job. Children who heard she rated a woman as being very good at the job. The other two pronouns were in the middle.
Sexist language can even lower females’ ability to remember content from a passage of reading.
Media and sexual abuse
And don’t get us started on language used in rape cases. Well, I guess it’s too late.
Problems include passive language: “Every year thousands of women are raped. How can this problem be stopped?” Hello. Every year thousands of men rape women!
In another study of sexual assault coverage, most of the quotes used were from the perpetrator or his lawyer (eww). Who gets to tell their story?
It gets worse with child sexual abuse in the media.
The media often use “it” to describe a child (most victims of sexual abuse are girls), and even when the media identify the gender they will later revert to using it, in something called Gender Slippage. Language is of critical importance in influencing societal views. When they do this, the article becomes more neutral and reduces the reader’s emotional involvement. It also reduces the perceived seriousness of the problem. Do we want to do that?
When adults abuse children, the media often frames the situation as a consensual relationship. Media sometimes use the word “affair” between a 60-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl. That is not an affair. That is abuse. “Jailed teacher afraid lover boy will dump her” (O’Mahony, 1998) is one example. Again, ewww.
Johnson (1994) did an incredible study of San Francisco newspapers’ coverage of domestic violence (DV) cases involving death of the victim. Professional DV experts were quoted in only 25% of articles; the main source of quotes was perpetrator’s family. Who has voice?
The term “domestic violence” was used repeatedly for non-white couples but rarely for white couples. White perpetrators were usually described as nice, normal, sweet, and loving; minority perpetrators were described negatively. In the articles, violence was seen as aberration in white communities but expected in minority communities.
But wait, you also get…
We’ve already covered stereotype threat. Yes, words really can hurt.
You get to choose what you consume in the media. What will you tolerate? Do you write letters to the editor?